When I visited the Zenith for the first time, I was overwhelmed by the sheer presence of the manufacture within the city of Le Locle, the third-smallest city in Switzerland. And it instantly reminded me of founder Georges Favre-Jacot’s vision realized: to create a true manufacture, with various production specialties under one multi-dimensional roof. And the “GFJ” monogram on the side of one of the buildings is now a familiar sight, often seen in biopics about the brand, but to view it in person is truly special.
Celebrating 150 Years
This recent visit, in April, was no less thrilling. The site was refurbished in honor of the brand’s 150th anniversary last year (the anniversary banner still proudly flanks the main entrance), and its pristine structures and grounds give one a sense of modernity grounded in history. Established in 1865, Mr. Favre-Jacot’s business was the first in the town to be equipped with electricity.
The buildings, now numbering nineteen, were ingeniously connected by passages so workers could move about without being exposed to the harsh Swiss winters, and the spacious workshops were designed to capture natural light—a true benefit when working with small timepiece parts. Incidentally, the passageways are still evident, giving the visitor a sense of a marvelous history that is still being written, while the workshops maintain their large windows that allow daylight to stream in.
Though “vertical manufacturing” is a current buzzword among watch manufacturers, Favrot-Jacot employed this then-radical system whereby a foundry, rolling mills, stamping presses, case and dial production and more were all under the umbrella of the manufacture for efficiency and independence. He also had the inventive idea of varying the workers’ tasks to avoid monotony by moving them from one workstation to another throughout the workday.
So thanks to seating fixed on rails, workers could change location without getting up and also maintain their relative position to the workbench in the process. In addition, the company’s proximity to the Le Locle train station—quite near the Zenith property—opened a commercial door to the world.
Today, eighty different production specialties take place here, from the artistic to the technical, at the hands of about 250 employees: research and development, tool-making, prototype-making, movement ébauches, stamping, decoration, assembling and casing, polishing and much more. Not surprisingly, such things as springs, hands and dials, among a few other components, are outsourced.
On this trip I did not visit the famed attic, where loyal Zenith employee Charles Vermot purportedly “saved the company” by hiding the original tooling, parts and notes for the El Primero during the quartz revolution. But I remember it well from a past tour.
As the story goes, Vermot moved equipment and documents to the small space, against specific company directives, to preserve the history and culture of the firm he so loved. In the 1980s, when mechanical movement manufacturing resumed, the documentation and equipment were unearthed, and Vermot’s hero status was affirmed. The attic has been preserved as a reminder of the company’s storied past.
My visit concluded with a display of watches in Zenith’s current production, which is an impressive sight to witness as a whole. And since my visit was concurrent with the Paris to Cannes Tour Auto Optic 2000 race, this year’s Chronomaster 1969 Tour Auto edition was on full and beautiful display.